The Lowdown on DHEA Supplements – Alternative Medicine Center – Everyday Health

Made in the body's adrenal glands, dehydroepiandrosterone or DHEA is a hormone that converts to other hormones in your body, including the male hormone testosterone and the female hormone estrogen. Because your body makes lots of DHEA when you are young and gradually, less and less as you age, DHEA supplements have become synonymous with anti-aging supplements.

Over the years, claims of benefits from taking DHEA supplements have included slower aging, clearer thinking, better sexual functioning, and higher energy levels. DHEA supplements have also been used to protect against heart disease, Alzheimer's disease, multiple sclerosis, mental illness, weak bones, and many other conditions.

But is there any research to back up these claims?

A recent study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism reviewed the medical literature on DHEA to see if DHEA treatment has any anti-aging properties for post-menopausal women. The study found no evidence to support claims that DHEA improved memory, sexual functioning, or well-being in women past the age of menopause.

Expert Opinions on DHEA Anti-Aging Supplements

The effects of DHEA are still not fully known. "DHEA is a powerful hormone," says Andre T. Guay, MD, an endocrinologist at the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Mass. "The body makes a lot of it, and we don't really understand all its functions."

Noting that "a little data can be a dangerous thing," Dr. Guay adds that "nobody should be taking DHEA supplements unless they are under a doctor's supervision."

Others, too, have strong opinions on DHEA. "Beneficial claims for DHEA supplements have not held up under the scrutiny of recent research," says Baha Arafah, MD, an endocrinologist at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio.

DHEA treatments may have some benefits for women who have a known deficiency of DHEA because of a problem with their adrenal glands, and studies are showing some promise for using DHEA treatment for osteoporosis, blood vessel diseases, and some autoimmune diseases.

But both doctors stress that there is no evidence to support taking DHEA supplements on your own for any reason.

"Men who take DHEA supplements to increase their testosterone level can't get enough testosterone from these supplements to make any difference, and they may even lower their testosterone by suppressing the body's natural production," Guay says.

Older women are also unlikely to benefit from DHEA supplements, says Dr. Arafah. "Although by age 80 the body only makes about 10 percent of the DHEA it made at age 20, it seems to be enough," Arafah says. "Really, the function of DHEA in the body remains a bit of a mystery."

The Danger of DHEA Anti-Aging Supplements

DHEA supplements are not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and using them as over-the-counter anti-aging supplements can be dangerous. "There are no warnings with these supplements and no regulation," Guay warns. "We have found supplements that contain only 10 percent of the claimed amount of DHEA, and some that have 110 percent."

Possible side effects from DHEA supplements include unwanted hair growth, acne, and irregular menstrual periods in women and testosterone suppression in men.

DHEA can cross the placenta and affect a developing baby, and it can also get into breast milk. "There is also a danger that DHEA supplements could feed a growing prostate cancer in men or a breast cancer in women," Arafah says.

Better Anti-Aging Tips

For now, there is no such thing as a reliable anti-aging supplement. If you want to age well, your best bet is to follow proven anti-aging tips, such as those from the American Geriatrics Society:

  • Eat fewer calories, red meat, and whole-fat dairy.
  • Eat more brightly-colored fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and fish.
  • Get 30 minutes of exercise at least three times a week.
  • Drink alcohol only in moderation.
  • Get seven to eight hours of sleep every night.
  • Keep your mind challenged and active.
  • Visit your doctor regularly, speak up if you feel tired or depressed, and keep up with all recommended vaccinations.

"DHEA is not the fountain of youth and could be dangerous if you take it without supervision," Arafah says. At least for now, evidence does not support taking over-the-counter DHEA supplements on your own. If you want to age well, skip the "secret formulas" and follow the tried-and-true path of a good diet, an active mind and body, and good preventive medical care.

Learn more in the Everyday Health Alternative Health Center.

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